Rethinking Islamism I: Turkey -- friend or foe?

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism.

Turkey has been in the news after nine of its citizens were killed by Israeli armed forces on the Gaza flotilla, and will continue to be so, especially if its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sails to Gaza himself, as reports from Lebanon say he will.

It attracts our attention intermittently, this strange state on the edge of Europe about which we can never quite decide: is it a democracy emerging from the shadows of decades of brutal, military-dominated rule, a la Midnight Express, or a faltering beacon of secularism in danger of being snuffed out by resurgent Islam?

We have a sense that it matters, a truth that sage voices remind us of, although not frequently enough. As long ago as 1987 the historian Bernard Lewis was warning, in a paper delivered to a symposium held by the then pope, that "much will depend, for the future attitudes both of the Turks and the other Islamic peoples, on the treatment accorded to [Turkey's] application" for full membership of the EU. (The paper is published for the first time in Lewis's new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East.)

That Turkey's application has been stalled for years, partly because of antique fears about Mussulman hordes - the lifting of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 still evidently too recent a memory for amity to flourish - is evidence of the suspicion with which the country is viewed. But the stumbling blocks are not quite what they were. Officially, the line originally was that Turkey had to improve its human rights record; it had to be nicer to its Kurdish minority; and there was the small matter of whether the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in the First World War constituted genocide or not.

That these may seem quite enough to be getting on with is highly convenient for those who do not want Turkey in the EU at any point, whatever progress it makes towards meeting the conditions laid down by Brussels. For the suspicion now is that the country is turning into the "wrong" kind of democracy. Europe never had a problem with the Ataturk-style secularism that Turkey's generals rigidly guarded for so long.

But it failed to make the link between the two, just as Bush and Blair saw no connection between the secularism of Saddam's Iraq and the fact that it was a Baathist regime. In both countries recent free elections have shown that voters are irritatingly fond of religiously-inclined parties which are happy to operate within a democracy, but are less enamoured of the adjective "liberal" that the West assumes should precede it.

It was obvious even before the invasion that Iraq was going to end up exchanging one form of nightmare for a succession of others. Turkey, however, was not expected - not meant - to elect an explicitly religious government that has formed a warm friendship with Hamas and enjoys cordial relations with Hezbollah. Don't they know those are the bad guys?

However often it is qualified, however much the moderation of the ruling AKP is stressed, the insurmountable problem is that the party is Islamist. This has become a very bad word indeed, even before you even think of adding that which frequently partners it, namely "terrorism".

Okay: I understand why. Islamists want to set up a worldwide Islamic state, goes the train of thought - and they'll settle for individual countries while they're waiting for global domination. These states will obviously be theocracies - think Iran! think Saudi Arabia! think Taliban! - in which no one will be allowed to have a drink, women will have to wear burqas all day, beard-measuring will become a profitable mode of employment, and hand chopping will be introduced into the criminal justice code. Or something like that.

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism. I think that's worth doing anyway, but especially so given that if every Middle Eastern country held free elections - which we want them to do, don't we? - we would almost certainly see rather a lot of Islamist parties doing rather well, thank you.

As this is the first post of what will be a short series on Islamism, I will draw this introduction to a close here but will end with this thought. If we are so fearful of the term Islamism that we do not begin to examine it, cannot see the multiplicity of different forms it might take, and cannot countenance any such ideologically coloured government being a full ally, still less a member of the EU, then we have already discounted as foes several ruling parties - and there will be more - who could conceivably be friends.

It would seem strange, and counter to our own interests, to start that list with Turkey, a fellow member of Nato and a country whose trajectory ought to be a cause for hope, not concern.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear